All the signals of hope are out there blinking and flashing —
In action!

‘It is as if every county in the world woke up one bright morning to find it had a North Sea at its disposal’.

Kingsmill Bond –
New Energy Analyst

As you read these words, the world is adding more capacity for renewable energy than fossil fuels. Unlike reserves of oil, coal or gas, every nation has a healthy combination of the wind and the sun. In fact, the sun supplies enough energy in just one hour to meet all the world’s energy needs for an entire year.1 Meanwhile the wind blowing outside your front door once originated from somewhere in the middle the ocean, and constitutes sufficient natural energy, to power the planet some 50 times over.2 If only a little more of it could be harvested effectively.

To look at the earth’s natural energy systems a different way – since the very beginning of life on earth, all our food’s growth has been powered by the sun and fed by the rain. Likewise our best decarbonisation technology, otherwise known as trees, already turns carbon very effectively into oxygen by using the sun’s natural light. We use these natural sources of energy every single minute of every day, in ways we don’t necessarily always see.

Sometimes we’re guilty of polarising our thinking between the natural world and technology as being opposites, whilst some of our best innovation stories have involved the mutual dependence of the two. Water falls from the sky and therefore is an invention of nature, yet it feeds our fields through irrigation channels which were an invention of humankind. Here, right from the sweet spot between the two, has always leapt our most sustainable solutions.

When too much emphasis is placed on human needs, we can totally neglect the natural environment around us. Yet not so long ago, a balance of reverse proportions meant humans were regularly getting beaten up by nature instead. Moving forwards, the future lies somewhere in this fertile middle area, where we use our imagination to allow both nature and ourselves to thrive simultaneously at the same time.

The compelling reasons to switch to cleaner forms of energy extend way beyond the climate change debate. Fairness and pollution reduction also come into play, as Rahwa Ghirmatzion from PUSH Buffalo points out: ‘We’ve seen that even Americans who don’t “believe” in climate change are embracing renewable energy. Some of them value cleaner air, others value energy independence and national security, and others are called to care for creation’.3 Then of course, there are also the increasingly inarguable economic benefits. So much so that even the oil companies themselves are looking to divest their activity and money away from fossil fuels.

Whilst incentives like Obama’s Carbon Pricing models might be a thing of the past. The cost of renewable energy is still tumbling faster than widely understood. This might go some way to explain why cuts to government subsidies are no longer effecting market growth.

In the decade since 2009, the cost of wind turbines fell by nearly a third, and solar panels plummeted by as much as 80 per cent.4 Households and businesses who own their own premises, have woken up to realise they can change the way they generate their energy faster than the providers. It was trends like these which made the Paris Agreement in 2015 possible. As Christiana Figueres, a former UN climate official observes: ‘Switching away from coal no longer looked impossible, even in developing countries’.5

Serendipity too, plays its own role. For example, the once oil heavy state of Texas now has more installed wind power capacity than Canada and Australia combined. These turbine fields sprang from a happy accident where carbon pricing bumped fists with a high capacity power line, built originally to power all the pump jacks which once sucked 800 million barrels of oil from the Permian Basin.6 From there, the decision to adapt to natural power was a financial no-brainer. In 2008, the turbines in Texas helped America briefly pip Germany and China as the world’s leading producer of power from the wind. If Texas were a country, it would rank as the world’s fourth largest wind power provider.7

Recycling existing infrastructure like this opens a powerful treasure chest of possibilities to reinvent the human made landscape, help fully decarbonise our economies, and introduce more sustainable methods of living – On a small but very repeatable scale, individual buildings can now produce more energy than they consume. Whilst they take from nature on the ground, modern techniques can give back to nature on their roofs. In Japan golf courses built during the electronics boom of the 1980s are being repurposed as solar farms. Their primarily south facing slopes, once host to important business deals, lend themselves perfectly to the application of clean energy making solar panels.8 In Australia, an old zinc mine is being converted to store electricity in the form of compressed air. And in the North Sea, plans are underway to store carbon captured from Dutch ports in empty gas fields.

The transformation of old industrial buildings to revitalised hubs for community and culture also serve as strong emblems. In previous lives both the Tate Modern in London and recently renovated MAAT building in Lisbon, were once coal burning power stations belching toxic pillows of smoke. Whilst today, through their world class art exhibitions, these inspirational spaces help power our imagination and fresh thinking instead.

Improved access to culture means more mindful ways of thinking are breaking out of their niche grooves and making their way into the mainstream. A recent Netflix documentary called ‘Minimalism’ showcased a positive trend for asking much deeper questions about what our possessions mean to us as individuals. This compensates for a shift in control of the conversation, where the brands who once dominated, now struggle to define in advance what our purchases symbolise.

Today, even the concept of materialism is being redefined by a new wave of minimalist thinkers which some are calling the ‘True Materialists’. They see our relationship with goods as defined less by what they symbolise outwardly, and more by identifying what their use and value means to you - the owner. These hybrid perceptions of value include the ethics and principles of the materials which our products are made from. At the deeper metaphysical level, the movement aims to identify ‘How matter comes to matter’.9

This all reflects much broader trends which demonstrate even the basic ideas of ownership are being challenged. From a resurgence in open source forms of sharing, to car pooling schemes which have made the ‘ride share brands’ more recognisable than the cars being used – proving the things we share can hold equal value to the things we physically own.

Outside of the factors we can control. The take-up of clean energy systems worldwide is assuming different patterns in different places due to a huge number of variables. We’ve already discovered in Germany that the taxpayer largely bankrolled their ‘Energiewende’, or green energy revolution.

Meanwhile in Australia, with little or no help from government policy or subsidies. It is a simple matter of plentiful sunshine mixed with the rising cost of traditional utilities, which is causing individual homes to switch to generating their own power. With battery companies flocking to Australia, people are shifting from ‘Consumer’ to ‘Prosumer’ at such a rate the conventional looking grid may soon be a thing of the past.10 So much so, it’s giving traditional power companies worldwide cause for concern.

Back in earthquake-prone Japan, seismic activity deep underground has long influenced the make-up of life above it. Architecture styles have been dictated by the need to be light, flexible, and in the event of the ground shaking, easily repairable. These same factors are presently extending their influence over the way the Japanese make, store and consume electricity. The Fukushima disaster amplified the public desire to seek an alternative future which was more flexible, reliable, and sustainable. In 2016 a powerful earthquake shook the southern city of Kumamoto. Cut from the grid the town was left in darkness for almost a week, yet the lights stayed on in at least 20 homes with solar-storage units.11

Over in the US, democratically elected leaders at state level, fortunately maintain more influence over their community’s energy sources and distribution than the decisions made at the Presidential level. When Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Paris Accord, he said: “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris”. And that prompted the Mayor of Pittsburgh to join more than 100 American Mayors, in affirming their city’s commitment to move to 100% renewable energy.12 Some statistics already back this long-term vision up. For example the US solar industry already employs more than twice as many workers as the coal sector. In fact according to Forbes, renewables in the US are already out-employing fossils by a staggering 5 to 1.13

In Europe, we’ve recently heard announcements from both the French and British governments that they will ban the sale of petrol burning cars by 2040. Interestingly, these promises are less about governments leading with policies which spearhead the most proactive changes, and more about them sweeping up at the rear behind the responsible leadership of consumers and manufacturers. With their headlights set to full-beam, Volvo recently announced all its new cars would be electric or hybrid by as soon as 2019.

20 years ago, the 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was packaged by some forces in the west as a socialist scheme created to suck money out of developing countries. Today, much of the growth is being driven by China and India. How’s that for a flip of responsibilities and fortunes?

As an increasing number of people take more responsibility for their own actions, and recognise the value of their own accountability. The government’s role then becomes to follow with policies which acknowledge trends which are already unstoppable. Pilita Clark, writing for the FT in 2017 noted ‘After years of hype and false starts, the shift to clean power has begun to accelerate at a pace that has taken the most experienced experts by surprise’.14 So perhaps the question to ask next, is how would you like to get involved?

Next ︎
Chapter 16 —
Defining Sustainabilism

Credits & Notes
World Energy Council
Resources – Solar 2013

Ken Caldeira
Stanford University
via The Guardian – Sun 15 Oct 2017

Rahwa Ghirmatzion
PUSH Buffalo
People United for Sustainable Housing

International Renewable Energy Agency
REthinking Energy – 2017

Pilita Clark
The Big Green Bang – How renewable energy became unstoppable
Financial Times – Thu May 18 2017

Justin Rowlatt
BBC News – Ethical Man Blog
Wed 11 Mar 2009

Powering Texas /
Wind power in Texas

Ariel Schwartz
Japan has finally figured out what to do with its abandoned golf courses
Business Insider – 16 Jul 2015
Simon Mouat
A New Paradigm for Utilities – The Rise of the Prosumer
Nov – 2016

Pilita Clark
The Big Green Bang – How renewable energy became unstoppable
Financial Times – Thu May 18 2017

Lauren Gambino
Pittsburgh fires back
The Guardian – Thu 1 Jun 2017

Niall McCarthy
Solar Employs More People In U.S. Electricity Generation Than Oil, Coal And Gas Combined
Forbes – Wed Jan 25, 2017
Niall McCarthy
Solar Employs More People In U.S. Electricity Generation Than Oil, Coal And Gas Combined
Forbes – Wed Jan 25, 2017

Pilita Clark
The Big Green Bang – How renewable energy became unstoppable
Financial Times – Thu May 18 2017

The Sustainers — 21st Century Pioneers
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